Whitworth University 2020 Faculty Biennial

Robert Fifield Part 1

Welcome back.  Even though the doors have closed on the 2020 Faculty Biennial, we have a couple artists left to highlight while we get things ready for the next exhibit.  Over the next few days, you will be able to take a look at the current work of Robert Fifield as well as read through what he had to say about it.  We hope you enjoy.

Blocks (titles vary), Robert Fifield, 2020-21, acrylic on MDF, 144 6×6 inch paintings, $50 each, contact Robert Fifield for availability

L. Sinnema:  I sent you a of the list of things that I would like to talk about. Some have to do with technical things and others have more to do with content or quilting or connections between painting and quilting. So, let’s start at the top and work our way down. Firstly, let’s talk about techniques we see in the work that you have here and the work that you’ve been making for a while.

R. Fifield:  Yeah, quite a while now.

L. Sinnema:  You use multiple painting techniques.  Much of what we see is the use of tape to mask areas and help create the pattern, but you are also airbrushing through materials to transfer texture in places. We see a lot of visual textures and layering of paint and color, and then there are places where the painting seems a little bit rougher or painterly maybe?

R. Fifield:  That’s not a bad term, to describe it as rougher or painterly.

L. Sinnema:  What can you say about these different techniques and how you use them and combine them together?

R. Fifield:  I think that most painters do this mixing of technique, mixing of different types of application of paint and for me there really isn’t much sort of substantive difference.  The difference is kind of in surface appearance more than it relating to any kind of particular content with how I apply paint.  I know other painters where the application of the paint is part of the content but for me it’s a little less that way.

I remember at an exhibit several years ago, maybe four years ago, maybe longer, Meredith was asking me the same question.  How are these paintings that have more precision different from these paintings that are rougher? And I think I really disappointed her when I said there’s no difference.  Gordon said they are not the same, and so he accused me of being a liar, but I just don’t see any difference in them in the way that I don’t see any difference in oil or acrylic or watercolor.

My content can be reached in multiple ways and so, to me, that’s why these techniques are of less importance.  I can use one manner of painting or another to derive the same content, and so it means that the application is not what is driving the content.

Blocks (titles vary), Robert Fifield, 2020-21, acrylic on MDF

L. Sinnema:  The work that you have here and a lot of the work that you’ve done in the past, whether people are familiar with it or not, has a very direct relationship to quilts and quilting.  Why translate quilt patterns into paintings?  What is it about quilting or the quilt process that you’re interested in presenting or speaking about in your work?

R. Fifield:  Yeah, I addressed some of this in my artist statement.  What has interested me in quilt making, not that quilts were invented in America, but I think that the quilt tradition that exists in America has been visually, so vibrant, so strong I think it speaks to me.  It represents the best parts of the American spirit of being frugal, waste not want not.  Of using these little bits of fabric that are left over from making clothing or curtains or other things for the home, that nothing was thrown away.  That these are still used for making something incredibly beautiful and more specifically useful.

I think there is a kind of efficiency when it comes to quilt making in that way, and efficiency in terms of painting and design aesthetic is something that I’m very conscious of, very interested in.  Seeing compositionally how one shape can do multiple things in a composition in the same way as these leftover bits of fabric have another life, stitched together in these quilts.

I like the sort of generally understood content of quilting, which is when you gift a quilt, it is a huge act of kindness and love and that, as I said in the statement, it is an extension of the maker’s arms and their embrace whenever you’re using the quilt.

Blocks (titles vary), Robert Fifield, 2020-21, acrylic on MDF, 144 6×6 inch paintings, $50 each, contact Robert Fifield for availability

It was eye opening as an artist who grew up where and when I did, being my race, gender, etc., and falling in love with Mid-century hard-edge abstraction, and then seeing these quilts from the 1800s, and being like oh wow, they did this a long time ago and likely better in some ways.  Seeing quilts from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and being like those are as good as Ad Reinhardt paintings, or seeing quilts and being like, oh man, that’s as good or better than Frank Stella or Josef Albers, or so many others. 

So for me, that was a kind of revelation to see, with my interest in the Bauhaus, which was still a time when women like Anni Albers, Joseph’s wife, who wanted to take painting and drawing, but because she was a woman they pointed her towards textile design, towards weaving, where she absolutely excelled, not because she was a woman, but because she was a brilliant artist and would have been a fine painter. Anni was also pointed to printmaking, which was something that women were allowed to do there (at the Bauhaus), and for me, seeing her work and then seeing the kind of design principles that she was working in and then seeing other artists from the Bauhaus, including her husband, seemingly wholesale ripping her off and earning respect in the art world for the work they were doing, and being like oh man, so much of that was Anni. 

The biggest struggle I have with making these quilt paintings is that I’m not a quilter.   I am not good at sewing.  The biggest problem is being a white male who has some kind of, albeit small, voice in my art community, and I’m not trying to elevate quilts into art making, because they’re already there. I’m not trying to use my privileges to give voice to quilt making in a different context.  I am using these patterns because they are part of a shared American experience.

Blocks (titles vary), Robert Fifield, 2020-21, acrylic on MDF

Does that make sense? Like that’s something that if I were having this opening or any opening with these quilt paintings, to me that seems like the most biting kind of question that somebody can ask. I don’t know that I would have an immediate answer for, “what business do you have doing this?”  But for me, I think the business I have doing this is that while I don’t make quilts, it is still part of our shared American experience.  Yeah, in the way it’s a little more charged with using this kind of patterning and quilts and stuff, but for me it seems similar to sort of ask the same question, “how dare you paint a still life with apples and a bottle of wine?”, when you didn’t grow the apples or make the wine.  I mean that’s not what it’s about.  And yeah, for me, it’s just using those incredibly interesting patterns that have a kind of geometry, and a mathematical precision that is surprising and really interesting as well as the kind of narrative qualities that quilt titles have.  Things like Indiana Puzzle or Rd to Arkansas or Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin or next-door neighbors, you know, all these really great traditional quilt pattern names.

Thank you for your interest and check back tomorrow for part two of Robert’s interview.

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